To See the Sea
A magnificent YA novel about friendship, loss, first love and a big secret
Fifteen-year-old Kees promises his friend Jan that he’ll climb up a tall chimney with him so that they can see the sea from the top. But when it comes to it, he chickens out. Jan climbs up there on his own. “At the highest point he waved, triumphantly. He shouted something; I couldn’t hear what it was. ‘I can see the sea!’ – could it have been that? And then he fell and I ran home. Nothing happened, nothing happened.”
Interestingly for a YA novel, it’s an older voice that’s heard in To See the Sea: the 70-year-old Kees, who, in a frank and honest look back at his life, reveals to the reader the secret he has carried for all those years. After his childhood friend’s accident, he ran away and then acted surprised when he was told about his death.
Everything in this story about love, death, guilt and shame is just right. Meinderts paints a wonderful picture packed with vivid details about the life of a large Catholic working-class family in a Dutch seaside village at the end of the 1950s.
The reader is immediately drawn to Kees, as he tells his story with such a pure and perfect tone. He has a sense of humour, his insecurity is touching – he is ashamed of his skinny arms after the Dutch “hunger winter” and of his soft, girlish nipples – and he speaks tenderly about his friendship with Jan, a rough and tough kind of boy who lights fires and then pees over them to put them out, and gets into fights, but who also has a vulnerable side and sometimes feels isolated from the rest of the world.
Kees’s love for Jan’s twin sister, Marijke, also produces emotionally resonant scenes: she’s the first girl he kisses and who lets him touch her breasts. When Kees meets her again, as an adult, he discovers that she, too, has a secret.
To See the Sea is among the best work Meinderts has ever written and deserves to reach a wide audience of adults both young and old.